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Across the country, detainees allege abuse

©Los Angeles Times,
published October 15, 2001


WASHINGTON -- Stories are emerging from the nation's jails of assaults and other abuse directed against some of the 700 people detained as a result of the federal investigation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In Mississippi, a 20-year-old student from Pakistan said he was stripped and beaten in his cell by other inmates while jail guards failed to intervene and denied him proper medical care. The FBI is investigating the incident.

In New York, prosecutors are investigating an Egyptian detainee's courtroom allegations of abuse by a guard, and the Israeli consulate is concerned about five Israeli men who say they were blindfolded, handcuffed in their cells and forced to take lie detector tests.

In three Midwestern states, U.S. immigration officials cut off all visits and phone calls for detainees for a full week after the attacks, a directive that officials now say was mishandled.

And in Texas, a man from Saudi Arabia initially was denied an attorney and was deprived of items including a clock to tell him when to recite his Muslim prayers, his lawyer said.

It appears unlikely that any of these detainees played a role in the attacks. According to their attorneys, none of them is being held as a material witness; two have been released. Officials have said that of the 700, only a few have links to the terrorism investigation. The vast majority were swept up on immigration violations or state and local charges.

Judges are denying bail, closing hearings and sealing documents. Prosecutors are refusing to divulge what is occurring behind closed doors in jails and courtrooms. Even defense attorneys often do not know what is happening to their clients, or they refuse to discuss them.

Because of the extraordinary level of secrecy surrounding the investigation, it is impossible to ascertain how many individuals may have been mistreated.

Federal authorities refuse to disclose even the number of people in custody.

In an attempt to find out who is detained and how they are being treated, the Los Angeles Times contacted more than 20 defense lawyers and civil rights monitors. In every case, the lawyers complained that their clients were being held too long and almost always said their clients had suffered some kind of mistreatment or undue hardship.

Civil liberties groups are increasingly concerned and worry also about even more enhanced law enforcement authority in a new antiterrorism bill approved by Congress last week.

Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said Washington, D.C., appears to be "overreaching" its authority.

Hussein Sadruddin, head of a Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in Dallas, said that detainees are being targeted because they are Middle Easterners. "People are going after these detainees because it feels like they are doing something for their country," he said.

But Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller insist there has been no disregard for detainees' rights.

"This Justice Department will never waver in our defense of the Constitution nor relent in our defense of civil rights," Ashcroft told the House Judiciary Committee last month. "The American spirit that rose from the rubble in New York knows no prejudice and defies division by race, ethnicity or religion."

Mueller, in a subsequent news conference, said detained individuals fall into one of three categories: They might have some involvement in or information about the attacks, they might have violated immigration laws or they are wanted on state or local warrants.

"We do not detain persons (just for) questioning," he said.

But the detainees' attorneys sometimes cannot get their own questions answered.

Dennis Clare, a lawyer in Louisville, Ky., said 40 immigrants from Mauritania were picked up on immigration violations two weeks after the attacks near Cincinnati, where they had moved after coming to the United States to escape police brutality in western Africa.

Authorities were interested in the group because one of them supposedly knew how to fly. Thirty-seven of the men subsequently were released, and although Clare represents the remaining three, he has yet to meet them.

The men have been moved several times to jails in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Louisiana. "They don't speak English," Clare said. "They are begging to get out of jail."

In Brooklyn, Mohammed Maddy, a former ticket-taker at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, was picked up Oct. 3. He was charged with sneaking his wife and children past security there on Sept. 10.

At a federal detention hearing, his attorney, Justine Harris, complained that Maddy was injured by jail guards at the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York.

"The defendant showed me a very large bruise which he has on the upper part of his arm, which he claims was a result of mistreatment by the guards," Harris told the judge, according to a transcript of the hearing.

Magistrate Steven M. Gold ordered photographs taken of Maddy, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Andres said in an interview, "It's something obviously we are going to investigate."

There have been numerous allegations of people kept from their attorneys.

According to the law, defendants charged with a crime are entitled to an appointed attorney if they cannot afford to hire their own. In immigration court, detainees are told that they may hire a lawyer but that one is not automatically assigned to them.

Dallas attorney Paul Zoltan is representing a Saudi man being held in Denton, Texas. The lawyer declined to identify his client, except to say that he is in his 20s, works as a sales representative and faces only minor immigration charges.

"He was kept in leg irons when meeting with his family," Zoltan said. "They didn't give him a drinking cup. They didn't give him a mattress. They didn't give him a blanket. He had to ask what time of day it was so he could pray toward Mecca, and they wouldn't tell him. He's very frightened."

Anne Estrada, Immigration and Naturalization Service district director in Texas, acknowledged that there have been problems with how some detainees are being held in local jails.

"Sometimes there are some misunderstandings and miscommunications about what our standards are, and sometimes we have to reach out to the county jails so they understand," she said.

For others, the hardships caused by lengthy detentions are more personal.

Abdulsalam Achou, a Syrian bread salesman living in Jersey City, N.J., has been detained since Sept. 15 for staying in this country 19 days past his visa permit, a minor infraction, said his lawyer, Lamiaa Elfar.

"His wife is close to nine months pregnant and she has a 1-year-old daughter who was born here," the lawyer said. "She has nobody here except him. She doesn't even know how she's going to get to a hospital. She has no one to take her."

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